Bell Canada is investing $1 million over the next five years in a post-graduate program at an Ontario university in which students will work with Bell employees on real-world problems.

The money will go toward McMaster University’s Master of Engineering Entrepreneurship and Innovation (MEEI) program. It’s in its second year and teaches engineers and scientists how to turn an idea or invention into a business.

“They are doing an actual practice in real live technology,” said Rafik Loutfy, director of the Xerox Centre for Engineering Entrepreneurship and Innovation at McMaster University.

“It’s not case studies. It’s real life.”

The concept behind McMaster’s program is what caught Bell’s attention, said Eugene Roman, group president of Bell Canada Systems and Technology.

“A program of this type is going to push the envelope around innovation that we’ve not seen before,” said Roman. “It’s around IT-based technologies and all the things that IT brings to a customer set. We think they can help us move forward.”

In one of the first projects, students will help Bell assess its service-oriented architecture strategy and find ways to cut costs and improve customer service. SOA is at the core of Bell’s work in the voice over IP and wireless markets.

“We’re always looking for new SOA-type approaches,” said Roman. “The students are going to be consulting us on that as if they were in our shoes.”

McMaster’s Loutfy said Bell is investing in the potential of the program to create entrepreneurs with the ability to commercialize breakthrough technology.

“We’re going to use the money to help students take their ideas through the steps of proof of concept and start a new business venture from it, particularly in the area of multimedia, communications, wireless and voice over IP,” he said.

There are currently 27 students in Loutfy’s class, but he doesn’t usually refer to them that way.

“I’m treating it as a business startup,” he said. “I have to raise funds in order to be self-

sufficient. I’m providing a service to the client. They pay a fee for my service.”

Students currently pay approximately $14,400 tuition.

To work with Bell, students must demonstrate a strong interest in the subject area.

“The passion has to be there,” said Loutfy. “If there’s no passion from the student for the idea, it’s not going to work.”

Bell has worked on other partnerships with McMaster since 2001, including a recent $450,000 contribution to pursue research in biomedical engineering advancements in telerobotics, teleinformatics, communications networks, telepathology and other emerging IP-based technologies.

Bell currently has 28 universities as part of its Bell University Labs program, which was established in 1998 to promote university research and development across the country.

The Xerox Centre at McMaster was created two years ago with the start of the MEEI program. Xerox, as the name of the centre suggests, was one of the original sponsors, donating $1 million toward the program. A local entrepreneur also donated an additional $1 million toward the program. The MEEI program will see its first graduates next month. One of the graduates started her own Web-based business after completing the program. She now runs the business with a business partner and employees that she’s hired.

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